There are some well-worn clichés about success and failure. “We learn most from our mistakes”, is perhaps one of the best known, while Kipling’s poem “If” is the totemic ballast for this exceedingly good line of enquiry. Then there are the acres of sporting analogies from “second is first loser” to Arsenal fans fondly intended encouragement to near neighbours Spurs, that despite their best endeavours in recent years “You’ve won fuck all” (although the foundation of confidence on which this observation is made, is more sandy that concretey).
I have had a thought for some time now that we need to reframe the emotional response to success and failure. Failure after all is, for most of us, our everyday lumpen porridge that keeps our feet on the ground; while success is mostly just the fickle rush of disturbed air as luck flies past our line of sight and ruffles our hair.
And yet the narrative of success and failure is designed to undermine us. Ninety-nine percent of the propaganda we receive is that failure, despite being what we know best, is a bad thing, that demeans and diminishes us as people. While success on the other hand, which is as common as hens’ dentures couriered by flying pigs under a blue moon, is apparently and tantalisingly just one self-help book away.
For me, this compounds our sense of failing because if I cannot have a bikini ready tummy in three weeks while still eating chips and ale, I am more of a failure than I already think I am.
My lived experience is failure. It is wearing odd socks, or traffic lights that turn to red as I approach them, a missed call from someone I have been chasing up for weeks, or a forgotten birthday, or a missed work deadline, or being late for a meeting, or a parent’s side-eye look about my life choices, or liking the wrong tweet… and so on, for ever.
Failure is normal, but we hope for more. When it comes to appraisal time, we have the long wait, twice postponed (at least) to find out if we have been graded “outstanding”. While I understand that praise is nice, if it is from a tired bloke a grade above us who has cut-and-pasted something from last year, it really should not be something that matters.
Frankly, I long for the day when we will all cherish being “competent with development needs” and just relish the release of pressure that comes with a lower expectation.
It is just a bloody job after all. Who wants to be outstanding at work? I would prefer to be outstanding at watching cricket while holding a Melton Mowbray pork pie and a glass of something chilled and aspirationally unaffordable.
I suspect we make five hundred decisions a day and most of them work out sub-optimally. I suspect that every day we are the recipient of five-hundred more decisions, and most of these are not to our liking either. Proclaiming this as failure however is to put our lives into a forced ranking and deciding we are at risk of making ourselves redundant. We must stop. This is not failure; this is to breathe and to be alive.
Success is not just an imposter, like a plausible, subtly drawn secret agent living amongst us; success is like a caricature of a crashing foam-clad mascot at a ghastly children’s party. A sugar-rush of mayhem.
I think of success as the person who sits too close to me in an empty carriage. We rarely tell that person to sit somewhere else, but we spend the rest of the journey wondering if we can move further away. Success is the overly loud person at the party, and where the kitchen is our sanctuary with the half-drunk glasses of cheap wine and the discarded cheesy snack wrappers and crumbs. Our safe space.
This is not me advocating for a lifetime of sub-optimal or denying the momentary fun of being centre of attention. It is just to note that our everyday challenge is not to climb mountains unassisted by oxygen or to discover a Nobel Prize in the attic; it is to find joy in the absurd, in the ordinary, in the routine and in the small moments of haplessness that afflict us all.
My stretch target for 2020 is to confront failure like a muddy-pawed puppy rather than a shit-flinging bear.
Onwards and sideways fellow travellers. This time-machine we call our lives is not to be driven like a bat out of hell to be gone when the morning alarm goes off. Instead we should sail gently with a sense of proportion, a connection with the people we love, and a destination that matters less. After all, two out of three ain’t bad.